Sasha Khokha/KQEDOn Fresno County farmland, marijuana growers have put up a fence to block the view of the field from the road, but it's visible from the air.
Marijuana is transforming California’s Central Valley as pot has become a more lucrative crop than almonds and grapes in the nation’s most productive farm belt, Fresno County Farm Bureau officials say.
Now, federal authorities are sending letters to landowners who lease farmland to marijuana growers, giving them 45 days to evict their tenants or face seizure of their land.
That strategy, part of a new federal crackdown announced earlier this month, is sending a chill across rural counties like Fresno, where landowners have subleased plots to growers planting marijuana next to crops like eggplants, beans and corn.
Federal authorities used to focus on carefully concealed grows deep in the national forests. But now, emboldened by California’s medical marijuana laws, large-scale marijuana grows have exploded across open farmland. And federal authorities say some of that pot is sold on the black market or out of state.
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Neat rows of orange and almond orchards form geometric patterns as a Fresno County Sheriff’s Office helicopter flies over the farms. Lt. Rick Ko points to a bright green patch in the middle of a dense citrus grove, where hundreds of marijuana plants the size of trees have replaced oranges.
“You see the black plastic next to this orange grove?” Ko asked over the helicopter radio. “You can still see how big these plants are right here. They’re well above that 6-foot fence.”
“When we fly over public land, people hide,” said Ko, as he pointed to some people tending plants below the chopper. “When we fly over these valley groves, people sit and stare at us or wave at us; they pretty much ignore us now because of the current state of California state law.”
Growers often tack recommendations from doctors on fence posts so they’re visible from the air. Unless local authorities can trace pot to sales out of state or on the black market, it’s been hard for them to raid these farms.
But now the federal authorities are stepping in, raiding corn fields and vineyards, yanking marijuana plants, and threatening landowners with civil forfeiture of their property if they don’t evict marijuana growers.
"We want landowners, potential investors and others who are tempted by the money in the marijuana industry to understand that these businesses are illegal and that the risk of federal prosecution and forfeiture is real,” said Benjamin Wagner, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California.
Federal authorities already are trying to seize land from one family that leased farmland to marijuana growers near Fresno. Law enforcement agents destroyed 25,000 plants on one of their properties this summer.
The landowners’ attorney, Donald Fischbach, said his clients are innocent, yet they’re the ones at risk of losing their most valuable asset.
“Our clients did not grow it, they don’t sell it, they do not use it,” Fischbach said. “Here they thought that medicinal marijuana was legal and people had permits, so it was OK for their tenants to grow it.”
Several landowners who rent to medical marijuana growers wouldn’t speak on the record, fearful of raising their profile to federal officials. They all said they didn’t make any more profit renting to marijuana growers than they did renting to vegetable farmers.
The new federal strategy is also frightening medical marijuana patients, who say not every pot grow nestled among walnut trees and strawberry fields is illegal.
Richard Daleman has subleased the 3½ acres he rents in Tulare County to 40 other patients. At one point, about 4,000 plants were grown on the property. Each plot was carefully delineated and labeled with a laminated doctor’s recommendation.
Daleman won a restraining order against county authorities after they seized plants from his property. But now his landlord is planning to evict him, and the ground is pockmarked with holes where nervous subletters have yanked their plants. Others have left some to mold and rot.
“I’m not cartel,” Daleman said. “If they didn’t badger, threaten and hound medical marijuana patients, might be that they might get more help to catch the bad guy.”
About 40 miles from Daleman’s farm, southeast of Fresno, “bad guys” are making neighboring farmers very nervous. Fresno County Farm Bureau Executive Director Ryan Jacobsen’s Thompson grape vineyard is just down the road from where marijuana growers put up a huge guard tower.
“Sometimes, you could see individuals with shotguns or rifles; there was no secret in what they were protecting,” he said. Authorities raided that farm last year because they were able to prove some of the marijuana was sold as far away as Boston.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office says a single plant sells out of state for about $4,000.
“You’re talking about a crop that is by far the most valuable crop grown in this area,” Jacobsen said. “Just a couple plants is going to outdo anything else that we grow around here locally on a per-acre basis.”
This story originally aired on KQED's "The California Report." Listen below: